- Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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Excerpt from Panama's Amsterdam Book "Blues from a Brown Cafe"


Amsterdam, Feb 4, 2001 -- The other day I say in my best Johnny Bravo voice: "Hey Mama, why don't we hit the cultural high spots today?" Chicks dig that highbrow stuff. "Because there are people there who say 'Hey Mama'," she replies. And she's probably right. New blip on MY cultural screen anyway is Johnny Bravo, a humanoid character on the Cartoon Network, whom I've begun to watch with my four-year-old granddaughter the nuclear physicist.

Johnny is, if you haven't caught his act, the personification of bumbling narcissism whose major motivators are food and babes, in whatever order. So naturally I think he's cool. And while you should catch a bit of it if you haven't, we're yawing a little to port here. Since we're going to be talking about currents of one kind and another, let's get out in midstream.

Johnny's speech pattern, Hey Mama and all, is drawn from one of his implicit heroes, and ours as well, the reluctant King: Elvis. And on the tip of everyone's hypothalamus or whatever these days is "Hey Mama" and
a dozen other co-dependent words and phrases that taken in their entirety are the subtextual foundations of a zeitgeist not only immense in its presence but immeasurable in its influence. Ahem.

The Memphis Mumble IS America to much of the world and maybe to us as well. I cannot count the times I've heard "thankyou.thankyouverymuch" here in Amsterdam. I'm sure without checking that my friend Keith Glass in Australia hears it often as well. Probably more. That Southerners drawl is a given in popular concept everywhere, but the truth is that up and down the River, from New Orleans to above St Louis, bayou patois and East St Louis jive have many more beats per minute than the speech patterns of Atlanta. Or Dallas. Or New York City. Speak two hundred eighty syllables in one minute. Now mumble. Now let the final syllable fall into nothing. WelcometoMelmphihhh. The Mumble's impact on the stream we call Americana is largely due, of course, to Elvis. His speedboat thru life threw a wide and high roostertail that twenty-five years after his passing still is a trough only beginning to fill back in, while its wake is constantly reflected back from the strangers on the shore that are us all.

Speech patterns come and go. Like heroes. I once knew a guy whose manner of speaking was so infectious that anyone who knew him longer than a week began to talk like him. And cultural impacts, though their
progenitors may pass into time, continue to repercuss infinitely.
In the currents of Johnny Bravo, RayBan sunglasses, turned-up collars, retro sideburns, and uncountable others, including the treacherous shallows of Hard Rock Cafes around the globe ("The music that made Elvis famous!The food that made him fat!") the riverboat Memphis Mumble and the baled culture it transports will continue to ply the River for untold more seasons.

Elvis will be leaving the building for some time to come.